Jacksonville St.-Murray St. Preview
After equaling the 1935-36 team for the best start the school has ever seen, Murray State is a win away from matching the longest winning streak in the program's 87-year history.
Considering its track record against Jacksonville State, there shouldn't be any issues doing just that.
One of three remaining unbeatens, the 15th-ranked Racers look to improve to 17-0 on Thursday night when they host a Gamecocks team they've never lost to in 15 meetings.
Murray State (16-0, 4-0 Ohio Valley Conference) has had 25 consecutive winning seasons, but it hadn't been in the AP Top 25 since 1998 before entering the rankings at No. 23 after a 76-72 win at then-No. 21 Memphis on Dec. 11.
A month later, the Racers have kept climbing. With Saturday's 87-75 victory at Austin Peay, Murray State matched the 1935-36 team for the best start in school history.
"Nobody likes to lose and we're blessed to be 16-0,'' said leading scorer Isaiah Canaan, who poured in 35 against the Governors. "We feel good, we think we deserve it with all the hard work we put in over the summer and all the hard work we continue to put in everyday at practice going at each other, pushing each other and trying to push each one to the next level."
After matching a record start 76 years in the making, the Racers are a win away from equaling a streak that's not even 24 months old. The school record 17-game run from Dec. 30, 2009-Feb. 20, 2010, featured a pair of victories over Jacksonville State (6-12, 1-4), Thursday's opponent.
Then again, beating the Gamecocks is nothing new to Murray State. It's won all 15 meetings since Jacksonville State made the move from the Atlantic Sun Conference prior to the 2003-04 season.
The most recent matchup, however, was also perhaps the most competitive. The Racers needed all of Canaan's 17 points to survive 60-59 at their home CFSB Center on Feb. 12 against a Gamecocks team that finished last in the league with a 3-15 record.
That Murray State team was upset in the OVC tournament semifinals before falling in the first round of the NIT, and coach Billy Kennedy left after the season to take over at Texas A&M.
Though they're still a distant third in the state's basketball hierarchy in Steve Prohm's first season at the helm, simply being grouped with Kentucky's two perennial powerhouses is refreshing to athletic director Allen Ward.
"We're mentioned in the same breath as Louisville and Kentucky, but really, what I want to hear even more is the Butlers and the VCUs and people like that,'' Ward said. "I think that's as important to me because to be seen in that light is something that we want to try to capture and build off of.''
Accuracy from behind the arc has had a lot to do with that success. Murray State shoots 44.6 percent from 3-point range - among the top five in the nation - and Canaan is knocking down 51.0 percent of his deep looks (50 for 98).
Senior guard Donte Poole, who never averaged more than 5.8 points in his first three seasons, is averaging 13.3 points and shooting 42.7 percent (35 for 82) from long range.
Defending the arc is imperative for Jacksonville State to have any chance, but don't look for the Gamecocks to keep up from 3-point range. They're shooting 25.8 percent from long distance, among the five worst marks in Division I.
Jacksonville State enters off a 72-65 win Saturday over Tennessee State behind leading scorer Brian Williams' 17 points.